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In Defence of Des'ree

In Writing style on June 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Here is a beautiful line:

Above the car spends an airplane, and instead of throwing pesticides in the fields, it throws a multitude of butterflies.

Nice, right? It’s from the Wikipedia entry for the song ‘Life’ by Des’ree. It describes, I think, the closing scene of the song’s promotional video. I don’t know.

It’s a beautiful line, though. I think it’s really wonderful. It stopped me in my tracks. This article could just as easily be about unexpected beauty found on Wikipedia. For example, Jillian Clark turned Wikipedia photo captions into some pretty incredible poetry. But it is not about Wikipedia: it’s about lyrics; it’s about ‘Life’. In 2007, ‘Life’ won a BBC poll to find the ‘Worst Lyric in Pop’. That’s quite an award to win.

I like lyrics a lot, though I am not always able to distinguish why I like a certain lyric: whether it’s because it is so surprising, or unselfconsciously bad, or apt, or funny. A good lyric is just something I want to sing.

I can’t think of a more agile lyricist than Tom Lehrer. I like him so very much. My website is named in honour of a Lehrer lyric, from his apocalyptic hoedown ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’. The song, about a nuclear event resulting in the extinction of mankind, includes the lyric:

You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas
Go directly do not pass go, do not collect $200.

It’s very funny, the song. You should listen to it if you haven’t.

I feel like there are some interesting lyrics in the world. The Backstreet Boys song ‘The Shape of My Heart’ contains the pretty breathtaking lyric: “Sadness is beautiful / Loneliness is tragical”. I think that lyric is probably my favourite bit of the song.

This is complicated. Taking pop music at all seriously is complicated. I don’t like pop music in an ‘ironic’ way. People get very serious about pop music. I like pop music. I think pop music is fine. Lighten up.

There are plenty other examples of excellent lyrics, of course. In ‘Fly Away’, Lenny Kravitz sings:

I wish that I could fly
Into the sky
So very high
Just like a dragonfly.

There are plenty of things like that: happy, linguistic simplicities: ‘~together/~forever/~never/~ever’, ‘~love/~thinking of/~stars above’, ‘~heart/~start/~apart’ etc. In French, people probably rhyme ‘coeur’ with ‘fleur’, or ‘j’adore’ with ‘d’amour’ all the time. I am guessing here. Who knows? I just mean that people never take chances, the goofs.

Anyway. Des’ree doesn’t use any of these hack lyrical clichés, and what does she get for it? She gets stuck with a bloody ignominious award.

I am furious, as you can tell. I have been fuming for two long years.


[Play ‘Life’ by Des’ree]

So let’s look at the song. ‘Life’, released 2 June 1998. It starts strongly, with the chorus. Des’ree is serious:

Life, oh life, oh life, oh life,
doo, doot doot dooo.
Life, oh life, oh life, oh life,
doo, doot dooo.

Life. You know? Des’ree means business. She’s not messing about. Oh! Oh my! Life! You know what the song is going to be about. Probably it will be about ‘life’. It will be about ‘being alive’ and all life’s little difficulties and vagaries. Something along those lines. I, for one, am hooked.

I’m afraid of the dark,
‘specially when I’m in a park
And there’s no-one else around,
Ooh, I get the shivers.

Plenty of people are afraid of the dark actually, all you critics. There are various rapers and muggists who may hide in a dark park, everyone knows that. It’s not an uncommon phobia, that one. In fact, it’s so common that there are three separate names for it: nyctophobia, scotophobia and lygophobia.

I don’t want to see a ghost,
It’s a sight that I fear most
I’d rather have a piece of toast
And watch the evening news.

So. This is probably the most famous lyric of the song. The ‘ghost/most/toast’ rhyme. It is most likely this one line that got her the award. And why? Plenty of people are afraid of ghosts. For some, it is the single thing they would ‘least like to see’. Imagine seeing a ghost! It would be frightening. Likewise, people do like toast. Toast is an excellent snack. In fact, toasters are an excellent invention – did you ever think about that? This song is a paean to toasters. That, to me, is more valid than another person singing about how much they don’t want their girlfriend to break up with them.

As for watching the evening news, I have it on good authority that the evening news broadcasts get the best ratings. There are a lot of people watching the evening news! Des’ree is connecting with her listeners here. “I am just like you,” she says. And they give her a bloody ignominious award. It’s terrible behaviour.

What’s more, Des’ree has used a poetic device known as ‘chain rhyming’. It’s not usual to see three lines rhyme in a row, is it? A ‘triplet’ they call it, I think. Des’ree takes a laudable, lyrical chance here and what does she get? Yes. A bloody ignominious award.

(Repeat Chorus)

Good. Really though. Des’ree has taken us on a tour thus far through the daily worries of walking home through the park after an evening at the gymnasium, on to the matter of unwanted encounters with the supernatural, and back to as quotidian a scene as there is: eating toast in front of the telly. It’s almost masterful thus far.

I’m a superstitious girl,
I’m the worst in the world
Never walk under ladders,
I keep a rabbit’s tail.

I mean. Come on. Not walking under a ladder is sensible enough: if you’ve seen those legal compensation adverts you’ll know how often people fall off the things. There are plenty of ‘very mad’ and ‘even madder’ superstitions out there. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”. Do I have to? “If you shiver, someone just walked over your grave.” What does that one even mean? I’ve never understood. How is it possible? Time travel? Also, good … so I’m not going to die in a plane crash, then. Why can’t people just leave Des’ree alone!?

I’ll take you up on a dare,
Anytime, anywhere
Name the place, I’ll be there,
Bungee jumping, I don’t care!

Did you hear that? Des’ree seems like a fun loving lady. Up for anything. My friend Jason got given a bungee jumping voucher for Christmas and he chickened out and then the voucher expired. Sure, you may poke fun at Des’ree for being fearful of a late night park rape, but I’ve never seen you bungee jumping, scaredycats. Takes one to know one.

Also, all four of these words are full rhymes, the lyrics scan neatly, the phrasing is natural … and you give her a bloody ignominious award.

(Repeat Chorus)

Life, doo, doot dooo
Doo, doot dooo.

OK. So, that last verse was packed with action. A little rest is what we need, Des’ree. Thank you. A little reminder of why we’re here. Ah. This is perfect. “Doo, doot dooo” indeed.

So after all is said and done
I know I’m not the only one
Life indeed can be fun,
if you really want to.

Sometimes living out your dreams,
Ain’t as easy as it seems
You wanna fly around the world,
In a beautiful balloon.

Des’ree is wrapping things up here, bringing things to a conclusion nicely: ‘After all is said and done’ etc, letting us know we’re nearing the end of the coaster. The balloon reference makes me wonder if Des’ree isn’t still influencing writers, most notably contemporary, internet writers. For example, Shane Jones’ phenomenal novella ‘Light Boxes’ features hot air balloons most prominently. Kathryn Regina’s recent beautiful collection of poetry ‘I Am In The Air Right Now’ relates the story of “a floatist who, while riding alone in a hot-air balloon, finds she is able to re-imagine the pieces of the world from which she has fled”. Regina’s book so moved Matthew Savoca that he too wrote a collection of poetry, mostly hot-air balloon themed, entitled There Is Air In Me Right Now. Des’ree’s legacy is felt still in these works.

(Repeat Chorus)

Of course. There would be no other way to end the song.

And even 11 years after its release, the song is still speaking to people now, still touching their souls. Here are some quotes from the website at which I copied the lyrics:

by nqaba on 4/26/2009 9:02am
No doubt ‘life’ is a kul song. To understand the lyrics you gotta know that some people believe in superstition and what Des’ree has done is magnificent! kip it up.

by Vitalik on 2/26/2009 4:59am
I can see this song has inspired plenty of people. The same it has done with me. When my mood is not very high, I’m just listening to it. Loudly!

by Phil Reid on 2/15/2009 4:38am
I thought this song was by Alanis Morrisette?

‘Life’ speaks to us all. It says “Work hard, play hard, don’t be a douche, stay in school”. It says “Life is alright, it can be fun, cheer up, do a bungee jump, don’t get mugged, eat some toast”. It says “Life is not always simple, but you can do it! You can achieve your dreams!”

And we gave it a bloody ignominious award.

Crispin Best writes at We Will All Go Simultaneous and many other places.

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  1. This is a brilliant piece, Crispin. You should be the ruler of the world. You are already the ruler of mine.

  2. I am moving out of my apartment and feel shitty. Now, I feel better. Thank you Des’ree.

  3. what Crispin Best fails to recognise is that a Rabbit’s tail is not traditionally considered a good luck charm. I think it’s fair to say that the ignomonious award was bestowed upon Des’ree for that tragic mistake.
    Thank you.

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